ST. GEORGE, Utah (AP) — Two years ago, 10-year-old Olivia McKay was diagnosed with dyslexia. Five months ago, 9-year-old Audrey Miller received the same diagnosis.
To help them deal with the challenges presented by this learning disability, their parents have hired independent tutors who study with the girls outside of the classroom twice a week. Audrey works with a local tutor while Olivia uses an iPad to communicate with her tutor, who is based in Las Vegas.
“I feel like after two years, I’ve been doing really good and stuff,” Olivia says. “I feel like me and Audrey can now conquer dyslexia.”
Although Olivia is feeling optimistic about how she and Audrey are dealing with their learning disability, their parents recognize the challenges their daughters have faced.
Audrey’s mother, Melissa Miller, says those challenges go far beyond the basic struggles with reading. It affects most of their school subjects because they are unable to fully process all of their textbooks. They struggle to keep up in class, and that begins to affect their self-esteem.
“It affects so many areas of their lives,” Melissa says. “They feel like they are failing at everything.”
Olivia’s mother, Angela Adams MacKay, says dyslexia is not tied to intelligence. A majority of those who have dyslexia are either of average or above-average intelligence.
“They have all these great thoughts but they can’t get them down on paper,” Angela says.
After experiencing the challenge of trying to find local tutors to help their daughters, the Millers and the MacKays began to realize that Southern Utah has a need for educators specifically trained to teach dyslexic children. So they joined forces to form a non-profit organization called Reading for Life-Southern Utah.
The basic goal is to provide affordable, qualified and certified tutors to help local children learn to read by sending a small group of educators to a three-day training program at the University of Utah Reading Clinic in Salt Lake City. Because the focus is on actual educators, local schools will benefit from having these trained tutors using their knowledge in the classroom as teachers. But the teachers will also work as private tutors outside the classroom walls, working one-on-one with dyslexic children.
“It’s a cause that has never been funded in any way in Washington County,” Angela says.
Those who participate in the training will most likely receive a scholarship to cover most of the costs, but about $1,100 per educator will not be covered. That’s where Reading for Life comes in. The goal for this year is to raise enough money to cover those extra expenses for five educators.
That means the organization is trying to raise about $6,000 total this year. However, the goal for raising that money is fast approaching. Because the workshop is in April, they hope to raise the necessary funds by the end of March, and they are still about $4,000 short.
The training program teaches a specific set of parameters called the Wilson Method. Angela says their organization chose to focus on this method because they believe it offers the best approach for teaching children with dyslexia.
Some of the possible warning signs of dyslexia are commonly known, like a child saying “beddy tear” instead of “teddy bear,” but there’s much more to it than simply mixing up letters. Both visual and aural processing are part of dyslexia. It includes things like phonological awareness: understanding how sounds work together to form words.
And it’s more common that you might think.
“It affects 20 percent of the population,” Angela says. “It affects one in five.”
A checklist at Understood.org provides dozens of signs, categorized by age group from preschoolers to teenagers.
Signs in the youngest group include difficulty naming familiar objects, trouble learning lyrics that rhyme, and a tendency to tell stories that are hard to follow. Once the child begins reading, the signs might include the tendency to skip over small words like “to” and “as” when reading aloud, trouble with blending sounds to make a word, and a proclivity to guess at which letters make which sounds.
Dyslexia is not always identified in those younger years, though. By the time the child reaches the upper grades of elementary school the signs could include a difficulty in explaining what happened in a story, a disinterest in books and a desire to avoid reading whenever possible. Even in teenagers you can look for signs like skipping over small words, copious spelling mistakes and trouble with correct pronunciation.
Both Audrey and Olivia talk enthusiastically about what they have learned from their tutors.
“She tries to show me what words I’m going to use to get comfortable,” Audrey says of her tutor. “Then I spell them out for her.”
Audrey says recently she has been learning about digraph blends, like “th” or “sh,” and three-letter blends, such as “spl.”
Olivia says the tutoring has helped her learn how to better sound out words. But she learns more than just how to read; she also learns how to comprehend what she is reading. For example, she learns that the addition of “ess” at the end of the word indicates something feminine, such as “waitress” in comparison to “waiter.”
She has also developed a love for reading.
“It’s one of my favorite things,” she says.
Because her tutor has helped her so much, Olivia says she thinks it’s “amazing” that Reading for Life will be training more tutors to help kids like her in southern Utah.
In the future, Angela says the organization hopes to be funded well enough that it can also provide occasional scholarships for struggling students to pay for their tutoring.
Both Melissa and Angela bring prior experience with non-profits to the work they will do with Reading for Life-Southern Utah. Melissa is director of Girls on the Run, an organization that helps young girls build confidence through running and community projects, and Angela is a former chairwoman of the Southern Utah Advisory Board for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah. Angela’s husband, Bart MacKay, will join them to form the board of directors for Reading for Life-Southern Utah.
Angela and Melissa both say it is their children who provide the incentive for this work.
“It’s Olivia; she’s our inspiration,” Angela says. “She’s worked so hard for over two years. It’s the kids who deserve the credit.”